By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
The curve ball is baseball's sublime deception, looking like one pitch and crossing the plate as something else entirely. Kind of like Clint Eastwood's best movies over the past decade, when a boxing yarn became a euthanasia tragedy, and World War II dramas revealed faded colors of stars and stripes.
There are no such satisfying deceptions in Trouble With the Curve, Eastwood's first acting job for a director other than himself in nearly 20 years. It is a baseball movie with a script full of underhand lobs, easy for actors to hit but where is the accomplishment in that?
Eastwood plays Gus Lobel, an aging scout who discovered many of the Atlanta Braves' finest players, over too many years to consider his job safe. Gus doesn't buy into the Moneyball brand of sabermetric ratings of talent. Those consarned computers can't measure a player's heart, or the perfect sound of throwing or hitting a pitch. Gus' eyesight is failing, so instinct is all he has left.
Gus has one last chance to prove his value to the Braves, by deciding if a Ruthian high school phenom (Joe Massingill) is worth a first-round draft pick. A front office whippersnapper (Matthew Lillard) expects Gus to fail. His longtime friend and director of scouting (John Goodman) and especially Gus' daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams), hope he'll succeed.
The role is squarely in Eastwood's wheelhouse, a cranky old man muttering against a world passing him by. Not unlike his turn in Gran Torino except without the racist tendencies, or the character's evolution beyond easy first impressions. Gus won't change but a movie needs an arc and that's where screenwriter Randy Brown whiffs. After loading the bases with somewhat interesting characters, Brown strands them in situations too mawkish, abrupt or incredible to buy into.
Or perhaps you'll get misty when Gus talk-sings You Are My Sunshine to his wife's tombstone, and reveals the reason why he abandoned Mickey as a child — a heavy development immediately forgotten. Perhaps you'll believe that the Boston Red Sox scout (Justin Timberlake) tracking the same player will not only date his rival's daughter but follow the old man's draft advice. Things just don't happen that way in real life, and each cheat hurts the movie.
Director Robert Lorenz makes a nondescript debut, after assisting Eastwood on several of his directing gigs. The student hasn't learned much from the teacher about economic storytelling or deflecting schmaltz. Trouble With the Curve slaps a few entertaining singles yet never stretches for the extra base in late innings that can be the difference between winning and losing. No fun, but probably a hit despite the errors.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365.